Shortly after my book Oprah: A Biography was published last April, one of Oprah Winfrey’s open-minded fans wrote to her website saying she wanted to read the book. Oprah’s message-board moderator hurled a thunderbolt in response: “This book is an unauthorized biography.” The word unauthorized clanged on the screen like a burglar alarm. Suddenly I heard the rumble of thousands of Oprah book buyers charging out of Barnes & Noble—empty-handed.
Days before this exchange, I had felt the chill of media disdain when my publisher began booking my promotion tour. Larry King barred the door to his CNN talk show because, he said, he didn’t want to offend Oprah. Barbara Walters did the same thing, proclaiming on The View that the only reason people wrote unauthorized biographies was to dig “dirt.” There was no room for me at Charlie Rose’s roundtable and no comfy seat next to David Letterman. The late-night comic had recently reconciled with Oprah after a 16-year rift and did not want to risk another. On my 10-city tour I made few, if any, appearances on ABC-owned-and-operated stations because most of the stations that broadcast The Oprah Winfrey Show are owned by ABC or its affiliates. No one wanted to displease the diva of daytime television. Although they had not read the book prior to publication, they assumed, given the author and the subject, that my unauthorized biography would be a blistering takedown of a beloved icon.
The reviews ranged from rocks (The New York Times) to raves (The Los Angeles Times). My publisher, Crown Books, aimed for sales from the fan base fondly known as “Opraholics” and “Winfreaks,” but once Herself publicly denounced the book as “a so-called biography,” the fan base dwindled, and to date the book has yet to sell 300,000 copies (a disappointing figure for an author paid to sell millions). It’s true that traditional publishing is getting slammed by the Internet and can no longer guarantee commercial success to writers, even those who, as I did, hit number one on The New York Times best-seller list and on Amazon.com. Sadly, the demand for books has decreased in the last 10 years, which may or may not explain why the United States has fallen from number one to number 12 among developed nations in the percentage of college graduates.
Priced at $30, my book was too expensive to flourish in a sour economy, especially in the target audience of Oprah fans, who, demographics show, are low- and middle-income women with little disposable income. But there was more at play than economics. Even among Oprah fans there is a bit of Oprah fatigue, following 25 years of her appearing on the air five days a week. Some people feel they know all there is to know about their idol, and whatever else there may be to learn they will read in the weekly tabloids at the grocery store. Others want the myth and do not want to be disillusioned by an unauthorized biography. In today’s celebrity culture, that word unauthorized carries immense freight. It signals an independent appraisal that will reveal more than floss, and some people cannot accept their idols with flaws. Instead, they need the illusions they see on the screen or the fantasies they read. To show anything less makes them feel shortchanged, even conned.
Journalists are just as susceptible to the power of celebrity as the adoring housewives who watch Oprah. Lara Logan, CBS News chief foreign correspondent and a contributor to 60 Minutes, appeared a few months ago with Howard Kurtz on CNN’s Reliable Sources. She castigated Michael Hastings for his Rolling Stone article that led to the firing of General Stanley McChrystal. When Kurtz asked her if there is an “unspoken agreement that you’re not going to embarrass [the troops] by reporting insults and banter,” Logan said, “Yes, absolutely. There is an element of trust.”
Hastings said that reporters like Logan do not report negative stories about their subjects in order to assure continued access. No reporter would admit to tilting a story toward favorable coverage to keep entrée, but they do, and that is one of the dirty little secrets of journalism today.
The kickback I got from many of the media mandarins who refused to talk with me, and who had themselves been subjects of unauthorized biographies, reflects the fear and loathing of the genre.
Still, I believe that the best way to tell a life story is from the outside looking in, and so I choose to write with my nose pressed against the window rather than kneel inside for spoon-feedings. Most of the great biographies are written about people who are dead, and thus the biographies are unauthorized. Championing the independent or unauthorized biography might sound like a high-minded defense for a low-level pursuit, but I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized, and homogenized. I read banned books, I applaud whistleblowers, and I reject any suppression by church or state. To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures, still alive and able to defend themselves, who exercise power over our lives. So I only pursue the kings (and queens) of the jungle.
For the last three decades I’ve chosen to write biographies of other icons, also without their cooperation and independent of their demands and dictates. These people are not merely celebrities, but titans of society who have affected us as individuals, influenced our society, and left an imprint on our culture. With each biography, the challenge has been to answer the question John F. Kennedy posed in Benjamin Bradlee’s book Conversations with Kennedy: “What makes journalism so fascinating and biography so interesting [is] the struggle to answer that single question: ‘What’s he like?’” In writing about contemporary figures, I’ve found that the unauthorized biography avoids the pureed truths of revisionist history, which is the pitfall of authorized biography. Without being beholden to the subject, the unauthorized biographer is better able to penetrate the manufactured public image, which is crucial. For, to quote President Kennedy again, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
Even after all these years I’m still not comfortable with the term unauthorized, because it sounds so nefarious, almost as if it involves breaking and entering. Admittedly, biography by its very nature is an invasion of a life—an intimate examination by the biographer, who burrows deeper and deeper to probe the unknown, reveal the unseen, illuminate the unexpected. Despite my discomfort with the word, I firmly believe that unauthorized biography can be a public service and a boon to history.
Without The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House by Seymour Hersh (1983), we would never have known how our government was manipulated by one man, who orchestrated the secret bombings of Cambodia. When Robert Caro published The Power Broker (1974), we learned how Robert Moses amassed power to rape and remake the urban landscape of New York City, changing shorelines and building bridges and tunnels and highways that uprooted traditional neighborhoods. Kai Bird’s biography The Chairman: John J. McCloy & the Making of the American Establishment detailed the role of one of the country’s most eminent statesmen in the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor and, as high commissioner to Germany, in granting clemency to several convicted Nazis. McCloy refused to cooperate with the biographer, and even wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times in response to Bird’s request for a document pertaining to McCloy’s life:
I have at no time authorized anyone to prepare, collect, or publish any such information on my behalf, nor have I authorized or requested these individuals to publish any material relating to my life and career.
Undaunted, Kai Bird continued his research. McCloy died three years before Bird’s biography was published.
These unauthorized biographers did not bend a knee to authority. Believing in the public right to know, they presented their truths without apology and in doing so raised the hackles of their powerful subjects, accustomed to deference.
Vast acreage separates authorized biographers from their unauthorized kin. Like poodles and pit bulls, one is adored, the other avoided. The authorized biographer is often hailed as a white knight, while the unauthorized biographer is usually demonized. Authorized biographers are like seraphim—the angels who stand to give praise—and yet not all authorized biographies are an affront to the whole truth.
One notable example is William Manchester’s The Death of a President (1967). The distinguished historian, who had written an adoring book profiling President Kennedy’s first year and a half in office, was summoned from Wesleyan University by Jacqueline Kennedy to write the story of her husband’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Manchester was paid an advance of $40,000 by his publisher but agreed to donate his royalties to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Mrs. Kennedy opened access to all the president’s aides and family and friends, while she herself gave the writer 10 hours of taped interviews.
But once the project was completed, Manchester became embroiled in a controversial public brawl with the president’s widow and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, both of whom retained editorial approval of the book. When Look magazine bought first serial rights for a record $665,000, Mrs. Kennedy objected to the author and publisher making a profit. She said all monies should go to the Kennedy Library. In addition, she took umbrage at certain scenes in the book that showed her smoking cigarettes (a well-kept secret at the time); not sleeping with her husband the night before he was killed (he had a stomach-ache); and sitting in front of a mirror bemoaning her wrinkles on the plane that carried JFK’s coffin from Dallas to Washington, D.C. These scenes were too bracingly human for the mythmaker who had wrapped her husband’s presidency in the ribbons of Camelot. She insisted that Manchester make heavy deletions. He made some; others he resisted. She demanded more. He refused. She threatened to take him to court. “Anyone who is against me will look like a rat,” she warned, “unless I run off with Eddie Fisher.”
Manchester, a World War II Marine with a Purple Heart, refused to surrender, and Mrs. Kennedy, accustomed to obeisance, filed her injunction. She stated in her court papers that because she had supplied the author with certain information used in his book and assisted him in obtaining interviews with others, she was entitled to decide what could and could not be published. The next day’s headlines reported the controversy:
Mrs. Kennedy Sues to Hold Up Book on Assassination
—The New York Times
Bitter New Row on Book: Manchester vs. RFK, Jackie—Words Fly
—The New York Post
For five years, the president’s widow had been the most admired woman in the country, but now her pedestal cracked and her popularity plummeted. National polls also showed that the public dispute affected Robert Kennedy’s political standing, so Mrs. Kennedy agreed to settle out of court just hours before the case went to trial. Manchester’s book was serialized in Look and became a mammoth bestseller.
A decade later I wrote a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (Jackie Oh!) and contacted Manchester to ask the amount in royalties he had contributed to the Kennedy Library. He wrote back, saying the amount was $1.1 million. That was in 1978. Today, more than 30 years later, his book is out of print, and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation will not reveal how much they have received in royalties.
Whether authorized or unauthorized, a good biography is nuanced and complex, because that is the way most people are. Being imperfect, most of us are messy and mixed-up in our private lives, inconsistent in our intentions, misled in our motives, and contradictory in our actions. Powerful public figures seem to have even more exaggerated faults and frailties, probably because their legions of publicists have spent years bleaching out the stains. The most authentic parts of a life are often quirky and filled with secrets that might startle the admissions committees of colleges and country clubs. What if they knew about Grandpa’s bootlegging, Grandma’s gambling, Dad’s tax evasions, or Mom’s affection for spirits? So there is a natural tendency to erase what is real, painful, or unflattering; sadly, those deletions deprive a life story of its depth and dimension. As Shakespeare wrote, “men are molded out of faults, and for the most, become much more the better for being a little bad.”
Even a “little bad” can be a little admirable, as I discovered while researching the life of Frank Sinatra, when I saw violence momentarily mingle with kindness. One day when Sinatra stopped by his first wife’s house to attend his young daughter’s birthday party, he arrived just as a rambunctious youngster toppled an antique vase from the mantel. Mrs. Sinatra screamed as her precious porcelain shattered to smithereens, and the youngster burst into tears, afraid she was going to be punished. Sinatra walked over and patted her head. “Don’t you worry about it, sweetheart,” he said. Striding to the mantel, he picked up the matching vase and smashed it to the floor. “There,” he said, wiping his hands. “Now let’s get some cake and ice cream.”
The incident illustrates a hair-trigger temper in sweet service to a frightened child. In later years the violence outstripped the kindness, making Sinatra almost maniacal. On one occasion at an after-hours party in the Palm Springs home of songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, Sinatra, drunk and morose, threw a woman through a plate-glass window and nearly severed her arm.
Neither of these incidents would have been included in an authorized life story, but both became a part of my book His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (1986), which is probably why he sued to stop publication. Sinatra claimed in his lawsuit against me that he and he alone or someone that he authorized had the right to write his life story. No one else was allowed to touch the subject. Journalists and jurists rose up to decry the attempt by a powerful public figure to silence a writer before she had written a word, and a year later Sinatra dropped his lawsuit. But by then he had so traumatized my publisher’s legal department that the lawyers subjected my manuscript to a protracted vetting that lasted 365 days, including Christmas.
The sticking point was publishing my chapter notes. The lawyers wanted them deleted. “They’re a road map for Sinatra to sue again,” they said.
I insisted on publishing them to document information in the book. “You can’t say someone’s mother was arrested as an abortionist without providing proof,” I said.
“Just call her a midwife,” said the lawyers.
“And that will explain why she was known in Hoboken as Hat Pin Dolly?”
After a year of wrangling with Sinatra’s lawyers, I spent another year sparring with my own. In the end, I prevailed on the chapter notes, the book became a number- one New York Times bestseller and, mercifully, there were no more lawsuits.
In writing about a mob-connected singer, I was introduced to the rigors of writing an unauthorized biography, but I experienced the real downside of disturbing power when I wrote Nancy Reagan (1991). That book, featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, The New Republic, and the Columbia Journalism Review, caused a furor when an article about its contents was published on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The prominent placement of the story enraged many Times journalists, who felt the nation’s most prestigious newspaper had lowered itself to beatify an extremely controversial biography. The newsroom was summoned to an hours-long meeting during which editors thundered about the dignity of the good Gray Lady.
I felt as if I had besmirched the entire fourth estate, until I read a Newsday column by Harrison E. Salisbury a few weeks later. For many years a foreign correspondent for the Times and later its assistant managing editor, Salisbury wrote:
The criticism that should be leveled at the Times and the rest of the media, print and electronic, is that it took a Kitty Kelley to bring to Page 1 matters that should have been reported day-by-day when Ronald Reagan was in the White House. . . .
The Reagan case is an almost terrifying example of media irresponsibility. For two terms a Hollywood actor and his actress wife sailed through rosy clouds of media hype. Not a word from the Watergate reporters and the Pentagon Papers publishers about the soothsayers, the Hollywood morals, the expense-account living.
A child could have perceived that there had to be a dark, dangerous mass under the glitz. But there was not a whimper from the electronic titans, nor even that paradigm of investigative reporting, The Washington Post. Everyone got on board for the joyride. It was a black day for American journalism and the nation.
Salisbury obviously knew the dirty little secret. During the Reagan presidency (or any other presidency) members of the White House press corps would never have written an unauthorized biography of the president or first lady for fear of losing access, or even worse, an invitation to a White House State Dinner.
But it’s not simply Washington journalists who puff up the powerful. Those who cover Hollywood celebrities, athletes, CEOS, even literary lions, abide by various levels of celebrity ground rules (control of photos and editorial content, including what questions can and cannot be asked) just to get the interview. In a recent Vanity Fair story about Philip Roth conducted over a restaurant lunch, the novelist insisted that the reporter not reveal what Roth ordered from the menu. The reporter mentioned the “eccentric condition” of the interview, but did as he was told and did not reveal Roth’s choice of food.
Celebrity seems to come with a corrosive sense of self-entitlement, once only the province of off-with-their-heads potentates. In an interview that Maria Shriver granted to The Washington Post not long ago, she waved off the reporter’s questions, telling him instead which questions she wanted to be asked. To the reporter’s credit, he wrote about her taking over the role of questioner and answerer, “as if she’s conducting a sit-down with a ventriloquist-doll version of herself.” And that was moments after she dismissed the Post’s photographer, snapping, “That’s enough.”
Celebrity demands could easily be dismissed as amusing diva excesses if they weren’t so readily indulged, and it’s the indulgence that enables celebrities to construct their own mythologies in the public consciousness. This curtsy to celebrity puts the lie to the notion of a free and unfettered press, while subtly molding the celebrity’s public image according to the celebrity’s demands.
When journalism’s watchdogs become roll-over puppies, we the public suffer because we believe what we read and accept what we hear. As the actor Melvyn Douglas said in the movie Hud about the mesmerizing power of a public image: “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.” And as Colum McCann wrote in his novel Let the Great World Spin, “The repeated lies become history, but they don’t necessarily become the truth.”
On the day my Nancy Reagan biography was published, April 8, 1991, President and Mrs. Reagan stood in front of the Bel Air Presbyterian Church to denounce the book and its author. The former president said he was accustomed to reports that strayed from the truth but “the flagrant and absurd falsehoods cited” in my book “clearly exceed the bounds of decency.” Three days later he received a letter of support from President Nixon. Reagan responded to “Dear Dick,” saying:
Nancy and I are truly upset and angry over the total dishonesty of Kitty Kelley and her book. We haven’t found one person she names as her sources who has ever known her or been contacted by her. Believe it or not one she named was the minister of our church—Reverend Donn Moomaw. He has written a denial for the church bulletin. Your letter will help me keep Nancy from worrying herself sick. She is Kelley’s main victim and is very upset.
As governor of California, Reagan had appointed Moomaw, an all-American lineman from UCLA in the 1950s, to the State Board of Education. The reverend later gained prominence when he offered prayers at Reagan’s presidential inaugurals. Understandably, the former president believed his minister when he denied contributing to the book, and sadly Reagan slipped into Alzheimer’s before he learned the truth.
I wrote to remind Moomaw of the 45-minute interview he had given in his office at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church. I enclosed a transcript of his taped interview and asked him to please send around another church bulletin revising his remarks to his congregation, including the Reagans. He never did, which only proves the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who said that a lie flies halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.
Several months later, the reverend abruptly resigned as pastor for “repeated instances of sexual contact” with five women in the congregation. He was suspended as a Presbyterian minister until 1997, after which he traveled the church circuit until his retirement.
In addition to their minister’s denial, the Reagans received several copies of letters from people who had written to the president of the company that then owned my publisher, protesting the words attributed to them in the book. In each case I produced notes and tapes documenting what I had written, and in no instance did I need to make a correction or deletion. “Weasel letters,” said the Simon & Schuster lawyer, dismissing those who wrote simply to send copies to the Reagans denying what they had actually said.
The most bizarre denial came from Mickey Rudin, Frank Sinatra’s former attorney, who had been named in the Nancy Reagan book as a source of help. Objecting to being thanked, he sued, prompting the headline: “No Thanks for Thanks.” He went to court and lost; he appealed and pursued his case all the way up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before losing again.
Having rankled President Reagan and President Nixon, I also riled George Herbert Walker Bush, who wrote in his White House diary on July 25, 1991:
Have you ever had one of those days when it just isn’t too good? . . . Just one of those days when you want to say forget it. Oh, yes, the President of Paramount that owns one of the big book companies called in to say that Kitty Kelley wants to write a book either about the Bushes or the Royals and he turned it down. That’s nice—a book by Kitty Kelley with everything else I’ve got on my mind . . . I can’t see her ever writing anything nice.
Years later, when I did write a book on the Bushes, I wrote to the former president, saying I was researching a historical retrospective of his family and would appreciate an interview to verify certain facts. Renowned for a lifetime of writing letters, George H. W. Bush ignored mine. Instead, he directed his aide, Jean Becker, to call the publisher of Doubleday.
“President Bush has asked me to say that he and his family are not going to cooperate with this book because the author wrote a book about Nancy Reagan that made Mrs. Reagan unhappy,” said Becker.
I don’t know if that telephone call was meant to intimidate my publisher, but I assume for Bush 41 the most “unhappy” parts of the Nancy book were her references to him as “whiney” and her stories about his alleged “girlfriend.” Barbara Bush was so incensed that when she was first lady, she instructed Roger Kennedy, then director of the National Museum of American History, to remove a large display featuring my books on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan from the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian. Kennedy kowtowed to Mrs. Bush and removed the display. To date it has not been restored.
The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty was published in 2004 in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign, and I was lambasted by the Republican National Committee (“an assassin of honorable statesmen”), the White House communications director (“untrue garbage”), the White House press secretary (“garbage and sleaze”), and the White House deputy press secretary (“fiction and garbage”). House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wrote to my publisher, saying that I was in the “advanced stage of a pathological career,” and that Doubleday, the house of Rudyard Kipling, Booker T. Washington, and Anne Frank, was in “moral collapse” because they had published my “scandalous and mendacious enterprise.” Days later, DeLay was publicly rebuked by the House Ethics Committee three times for unethical conduct. Within a year he was indicted in a criminal investigation in Texas and charged with a felony that forced his resignation from the House of Representatives. After six years of litigation, his trial began on November 1, 2010. He was last seen on television in 2010 wearing sequins and “dancing with the stars.”
Promoting the unauthorized biography of the Bush family dynasty was daunting, because of the “how-dare-you” attitude of the media, which could not accept the portrait of the elder Bush as a man who did not live up to the orchestrated public image they had bestowed upon him. A prime example of the mythology surfaced after M. Charles Bakst reviewed the book for The Providence Journal. A political columnist in Rhode Island, Bakst had interviewed Bush in 1991 about his war experience and took issue with my reporting on the discrepancies between Bush’s 1944 recollections in his personal letters of being shot down over the Pacific during World War II and what he later claimed in a 1988 book he had written with Doug Wead.
In 1944, Bush bailed out of his plane and maintained that he never knew exactly what happened to his two-man crew, who were never found. In 1988 he changed his story and said that he saw his gunman killed by machine-gun fire and his radioman parachute out before he was fired on. If one accepts his contemporaneous accounts in 1944, plus official Navy documents, then the 1988 account is a fabrication. Bolstered by documents showing that there were no machine guns and no dog fights involving machine guns, the inescapable conclusion is that George Bush plumped up his war record for political gain.
Running for president in 1988, Bush called his book George Bush: Man of Integrity. Bakst wrote that he had never heard of the book or the two different versions Bush had told about his war experience. Bakst sent a copy of his review to the former president, who responded with a handwritten note:
As for Kitty Kelly [sic]—she is a liar and a smear artist. I had not heard of the Wead book. I never talked to Wead about jumping out of my plane. Nor did I write a book with Doug Wead ever. This is but one instance of the Kelly smear. But my family has no chance in a court so Kitty & others are free to lie and smear. Enough! All best, George Bush.
I was reeling and so was my publisher, who faxed Bakst a copy of the book jacket from Man of Integrity, which showed that George H. W. Bush had indeed collaborated with Wead. Even Bakst was taken aback. When he contacted the former president again, Bush responded through Jean Becker. She said he “felt guilty” about not remembering that he had written the book, but he stood by his contention that Kitty Kelley was “a liar and a smear artist.” Bush did not provide specifics to substantiate his accusations. Nor did he cite one error, one mistake, or one misrepresentation in my book. Apparently, he wasn’t bothered by the facts—just the fact-finder. The former president, now retired in Texas, spends a few days a month at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, where he autographs leather bomber jackets like the one he wore as a Navy pilot in World War II. He sells them for $985.
Presidential wrath has its niggling little consequences. After almost 30 years as a contributing editor for Washingtonian magazine, I was suddenly removed from the masthead. The editor said he disapproved of my Bush book because of its intimate revelations and its timing, but then he might have been doing the bidding of the magazine’s owner, Philip Merrill, who was a presidential appointee of both Bushes and a close personal friend of Vice President Dick Cheney. In any event, Bush 41 was delighted with the news. He told Time’s Hugh Sidey: “Kitty Kelley. Did you see where somebody handed her her hat the other night? The Washingtonian. I loved that.”
Relieved of my masthead status, I crept back into my writer’s cave, determined to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. But then Fox News commentator Bernard Goldberg published a book titled 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America and I found myself listed as culprit number 80. Granted, this was not nearly as illustrious as being on Nixon’s enemies list, but when the Associated Press called for a reaction, I said I was proud to be included in any group with President Jimmy Carter, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, and actor/activist Harry Belafonte.
I still dream of going to the same heaven as David McCullough and Justin Kaplan, but I’m probably headed for whatever awaits the unanointed biographer. I’ve toiled too long on the unauthorized side of the street to ever hear the seraphim sing. Long concerned about my salvation, friends have made various suggestions over the years to try to counter my unauthorized image:
Dye your hair gray
Take the veil
Dress like Barbara Bush
Hang out with nuns
Start a school in South Africa
Write under your husband’s name
Become born again
Write a children’s book
Go to Harvard
Whether or not I ever write another unauthorized biography, I’ll keep marching forward and continue wearing with pride the button I snatched from my friend, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote an unauthorized biography of Mother Teresa. The button says: All the Right Enemies.